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Heaven on their minds: Jesus Christ Superstar at the Pioneer


By Owen Bryant 

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a powerhouse of modern musical theater. Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying he is one of the progenitors of the megamusical, the theatrical equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie. With titles like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” in his catalog, Webber has become a household name—a superstar in his own right.

Having just passed the 50-year anniversary of its stage debut, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of Webber’s earlier and most iconic works. It started out as a concept album in 1970, evoking the sounds of contemporary rock artists like Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple (the latter’s Ian Gillan played Jesus on the album). 

It quickly moved to the London and New York stages and the rest was history.

Following the events of the final week of Jesus’s life, from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, “Superstar” is a non-stop rock opera that pays respects to its source material but not without controversy. From the unapologetic rock and roll to the portrayal of Jesus as a normal person with flaws, to the suggested romance between him and Mary Magdalene, and sadly, down to simple casting choices, this show has continued to ruffle feathers throughout the decades. 

As a nonreligious person who appreciates a good story and great rock and roll, I see “Superstar” as an opportunity more than anything else. 

The show has done well reinventing itself over the years on film and stage, and each iteration brings something different to the table. Now playing at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Comes to Reno series, the current company surely brings their own life to the production. 

Reminiscent of the recent live televised production starring John Legend, the cast performed in a looming industrial setting which provided different levels for the band to play, and for the actors to climb. Their costumes were equally reminiscent, as most were garbed in loose-fitting gray harem pants, tank tops and hoodies. Anachronism has long been a staple of this show, and this production is no exception.

The performances were superb. Jesus and Judas were played by two understudies (Garfield Hammonds and SandyRedd) both of whom wailed through their roles like true rock stars. They often danced around with microphones in hand, bringing that desired concert feel to the show. 

James Delisco Beeks and Aaron LaVigne in the North American Tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Image credit Matthew Murphy. Used with permission.

Some of the other movement on stage seemed a little confusing, though. With almost as much dancing as singing, sometimes the ensemble seemed a little crowded and their dance moves puzzling. With all of them dressed very similarly, it became hard to distinguish who was who at times, and what action I should be watching.

The supporting cast like the priests and Pilate were in fine shape but likewise had some stylistic choices that weren’t my favorite – lots of suggestive microphone stand stroking for such religious figures. 

One standout performance, which is usually the case in this show, was King Herod (played by Paul Louis Lessard) who appeared for his number in a gigantic gold lamé cape that would have made Liberace jealous and performed his catty 1920s-jazz number in equally flamboyant style.

Gold and silver make quite an impression in this production. Gold glitter and silver body paint are used to represent things like luxury, vice and betrayal. Silver paint literally staining Judas’s hands represent the bribe he accepts for exposing Jesus’s whereabouts to the Roman soldiers. 

The glitter was used in some strange parts like the flogging scene, and I’m not so sure it read well seeing Jesus covered in blood and gold glitter toward the end. Both Jesus’ and Judas’ fates could have been handled more literally, and I think it would have been more impactful.

But the passion this very capable cast brought to the show was apparent and they kept the spirit thriving as I had hoped they would. Aside from some occasionally head-scratching stylistic choices, the show was ultimately pretty enjoyable, particularly the vocal performances. Whether you’re a follower of Jesus or of rock and roll, or both, this show has always proved itself an enjoyable and moving experience. 

“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays through May 22 at the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts.

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Timothy Sheader

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